The Tudor Society

December 20 – Catherine Howard’s stepgrandmother begs forgiveness from the king

On this day in Tudor history, 20th December 1541, a “very sickly” Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, begged King Henry VIII for forgiveness.

The dowager duchess had been arrested and taken to the Tower accused of misprision of treason for hiding her stepgranddaughter Catherine Howard's past relationship with Francis Dereham.

In today's talk, I share what the dowager duchess wrote to the king and also what happened to this sickly woman.

Also on this day in history:


20 December
On this day in Tudor history, 20th December 1541, a “very sickly” Agnes Tilney, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the fall of her step-granddaughter, Queen Catherine Howard, begged Henry VIII for forgiveness. She also confessed to having another £800 hidden at Norfolk House. This was on top of the goods and money listed in an inventory taken earlier in the month and the 1000 pounds extra that she’d already confessed to having hidden at the house on 11th December. The equivalent of millions of pounds in today’s money was found at her home.

William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, and Thomas Wriothesley recorded their visit to the dowager duchess on 20th December in a letter to Ralph Sadler, King Henry VIII’s principal secretary, on 21st December, writing:
“Immediately after the despatch of the letter written yesterday from the whole Council here, they two went to the Tower. Began with the lady of Norfolk, whom they found on her bed and apparently very sickly, urging her to reveal more of the lewd demeanour of the Queen and Deram. Describe, at great length, her sorrowful protestation that she never suspected anything more than a light love between them, and thought that Deram gave her money only because he was her kinsman. Also how she prayed the King's pardon for not having told of it before the marriage, and for breaking Deram's and Damporte's coffers, confessed where 800l. more was hidden in her house (which Wriothesley, with Mr. Attorney, Mr. Pollard, and Mr. Brystowe, found this morning), and begged that the King would not give away her house at Lambeth, for she could not long live in the Tower.”

The dowager duchess must have been terrified for she surely would have heard about the executions of Dereham and Culpeper on 10th December.
Agnes Tilney was the second wife of Queen Catherine Howard’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and her stepgranddaughter had been placed in her household, which was based near Horsham, in Sussex, and at Norfolk House in Lambeth. During her time there, Catherine had been involved romantically with music tutor, Henry Manox, and one of her grandmother’s employees, Francis Dereham. Of course, nobody knew at that time that Catherine would ever catch the King of England’s eye. The dowager duchess and members of the Tilney and Howard families, were aware, though, of Catherine’s past and hadn’t informed the king. She was interrogated on several occasions and, on 11th December 1541, was committed to the Tower accused of misprision of treason. On 22nd December 1541, the dowager duchess and several members of the Tilney and Howard families were arraigned for misprision of treason, for covering up the “unlawful, carnal, voluptuous, and licentious life” of Queen Catherine Howard while she lived with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk at Lambeth. They were all found guilty and sentenced to “perpetual imprisonment and loss of goods”.

On 5th May 1542, early five months after she’d been imprisoned in the Tower of London, the dowager duchess was pardoned and released. Although some of her former manors were restored, she had lost many of her possessions and her former home, Norfolk House, was granted to her stepson, the Duke of Norfolk. She died in 1545, in her late 60s, and was buried first at Thetford Priory in Norfolk, and then moved to St Mary’s Church, Lambeth, now the Garden Museum.

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